MURMURED IN DREAMS by Stephen Bacon
Luna Press, p/b, £9.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Horror stories can fit on a spectrum from the overt, where the scene becomes spattered with gore from horizon to horizon, to the subtle, where only by paying close attention can you discover what it is that is causing those unsettling shivers. There is good writing along the spectrum though the blood-soaked end is more likely to have writing in dire need of improvement. Fortunately, Stephen Bacon writes excellent and subtle stories. He is also very good at describing grimy and seedy environments.
The majority of the stories in this collection have a contemporary setting, with the characters appearing to be ordinary members of society. Many, though, hide secrets. These may colour their actions in the present or have influenced their lives to this point. In a number of stories, it is revisiting a place long left behind that invoke the memories. In ‘Cuckoo Spit’, Megan only returns to her mother’s house after twenty-three years because her step-father has disappeared and feels she is needed. Megan has a fear of dogs because she was bitten by her step-father’s dog as a child. Despite knowing that, her mother has taken in a stray just before Megan’s arrival. The revelations are dropped subtly into the text by thoughts and small actions, which marks out Bacon’s style. In ‘None So Blind’, Novak goes back to the town where he used to live. The memories are stirred by a conversation with a woman who, like him, was a victim of the viciousness of her late husband.
Childhood can be a source of trauma that infects the rest of your life. In both ‘Somewhere On Sebastian Street’ and ‘The Summer Of Bradbury’, the narrator remembers back to childhood and the disappearance of friends. In the former, it is a dare for the misfit of the group who goes into a derelict building; in the latter, the boys vanish into a culvert exposed by a reservoir’s falling water levels. In both, the narrator suspects something supernatural, while to the authorities, it remains a mystery. Both narrators wonder if they should have done something differently.
The past is not only a cause of regret. Sometimes the events fester, and a need for revenge is conceived, as in ‘Lord Of The Sand’. The nasty dénouement has no supernatural elements but is conceived by a deranged mind. Often grief can lead to people doing things that may seem out of character. In ‘The Children Of Medea’, the parallels between the legend of Medea and the tragic events that lead the protagonist to take the post of a temporary teacher on a Greek island, provide his reasons for his actions. Poison plays a part in this story as it does in ‘What Grief Can Do’ where a woman confronts her step-father over the reasons for her mother’s suicide some years before. This is a story where the clues to the reasons are subtly placed. This is also true in ‘Bandersnatch’, where the reasons why the narrator has not seen his sister for ten years is carefully revealed as the story progresses.
Only two of these can be regarded as SF. In ‘Rapid Eye Movement’, it is not the fact that when anyone falls asleep, they die, but the way the characters cope with it; they do not want to die but know that they must eventually succumb. ‘Happy Sands’ is another that uses grief as its trigger. In the near future, an android can be created to ease the sense of loss. The protagonist is scouring the black market for the stolen replica of his daughter.
While most of the stories have a UK setting, two very different stories are set in Africa. ‘The Cambion’ draws on the superstitions in rural communities. The punishment exacted on what is considered a devil child, whereas the monster in ‘It Came From The Ground’ has familiar elements but within the context of a country riven by war.
The beautiful cover illustration by Ben Baldwin deserves more than a mention. It fits perfectly with the story ‘Husks’. This contains many of the elements that recur in Bacon’s stories. A man returns to the cottage where his wife and daughter died. His situation is one of guilt and grief as he is determined to complete the suicide pact that he chickened out of five years previously.
These and the other six stories that make up this collection lull the reader into a false sense of security before they twist upon themselves. Although the places where the stories originally appeared are given, it is a shame that the actual date of publication isn’t. An excellent collection from a talented writer.